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‘The quality of the writing was clear as a bell’: the astonishing talent of Dennis Potter
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‘The quality of the writing was clear as a bell’: the astonishing talent of Dennis Potter

On the morning of 15 March 1994, the 58-year-old TV dramatist Dennis Potter arrived at South Bank Studios in London, to give his extraordinary final public interview to Melvyn Bragg. A month before, Potter – a television auteur and the creator of The Singing Detective and Pennies from Heaven among dozens of other television plays, series and feature films – had been diagnosed with terminal cancer of the pancreas and liver.

No one knew how long the interview would last. In the almost hour-long package, broadcast a few days later on Channel 4, Potter looked perilously thin and exhausted, his body swamped by a baggy beige suit. The table between him and Bragg was covered with a few necessary objects: ashtray, coffee cup, champagne glass, as well as a beaker of liquid morphine. Despite the grim prognosis – he had been given just a few months to live – Potter was writing his latest, and last, scripts, the interconnected series Karaoke and Cold Lazarus, unique in later being co-produced by Channel 4 and the BBC. “It keeps me going,” he explained to Bragg. “There would be no point in remaining if I didn’t [write].”

Potter died on 7 June at his home in Ross-on-Wye, the market town on the northern fringes of his beloved Forest of Dean. Obituary writers scrambled for the right superlatives and their apparently obligatory qualifiers. The New York Times acknowledged Potter’s capacity for formal innovation, as well as his “caustic and controversial” streak.

The Potter devotee Mark Lawson penned a scrupulously even-handed piece for the Independent. Few, Lawson wrote, had done more to elevate television into a respectable art form. If, during his early days writing for the medium, “the science of recording was infantile, and there was no hope of immortality for authors in this form … it is some comfort for the loss of this original, witty, astringent, bloody-minded, honest, tortured and in every sense courageous writer that future viewers will be able to see [his work] again, or for the first time”.

Extras take a break from filming Cold LazarusView image in fullscreen

Born in 1935, Potter grew up in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, in a multigenerational family home. His father – a “lovely, gentle man” – and grandfather were miners; the region’s sites, sounds and unusual dialect recurred repeatedly in his later writing. Potter was sexually abused by his uncle at 10, an experience he also returned to repeatedly in his work.

After attending Oxford university, he joined the BBC as a graduate trainee, making a documentary on the Forest of Dean and writing The Glittering Coffin, an excoriation of British decline post-Suez. In 1961, he was diagnosed with acute psoriatic arthropathy, a condition that often left him hospitalised and in excruciating pain. After a temporary remission from illness in the early 60s, 29-year-old Potter unsuccessfully ran as a Labour candidate in the 1964 general election.

His psoriasis soon returned with a vengeance. Writing – as the TV critic for the New Statesman and the Sunday Times, as well as via his first forays into screenwriting – became one of the only feasible ways of making a living. “He wrote when he should have been sleeping,” says Kenith Trodd, his longtime collaborator and producer. “He wrote compulsively. You couldn’t hold him down.”

The subsequent creative flowering has few equals in the history of British TV. First came the political plays, Stand Up, Nigel Barton and Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton in 1965, followed by a run of extraordinarily bold and often deeply controversial plays, which provoked the ire of the campaigner Mary Whitehouse, among others. Brimstone and Treacle was banned in 1976 by the then BBC director general, Alasdair Milne. (The play depicts a diabolical visitor descending into a family home; he eventually rapes their brain-damaged daughter.)

Bob Hoskins and Cheryl Campbell in Pennies from HeavenView image in fullscreen

But it was Pennies from Heaven (1978), a surrealist musical fantasy serial starring Bob Hoskins, that transformed his career and led to a Hollywood adaptation in 1981 starring Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters. But The Singing Detective (1986) represents perhaps his crowning success: a perfect six-part distillation of Potter’s rejection of “dreary naturalism”. Michael Gambon plays Philip Marlow, the psoriasis-wracked author of detective potboilers, as he drifts in and out of hallucinations of his past and characters from his own novels.

It used music hall numbers, flashbacks and extended fantasy sequences; it’s easy to see why David Lynch was such a steadfast admirer (it was rumoured that the two came close to collaborating). Janet Suzman, who played Nicola, Marlow’s ex-wife, says: “We knew it would be special. The quality of the writing was clear as a bell, so fresh and inventive. I wasn’t in the least surprised by its success. He could make television theatrical.”

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The series elevated Potter’s career to new heights, hoovering up acclaim, several Baftas and a delighted, dedicated mass audience. He began to demand, and receive, unprecedented creative licence from broadcasters. This was not always to the work’s benefit. Blackeyes (1989) – an adaptation of his novel about a female model was written, produced, narrated and directed by Potter – and proved a critical and reputational disaster. “If the producers think the script is a sort of neat, useful accessory for the director to shit upon … I will have to start directing them myself,” he said. Telling the story of a young model’s continued sexual exploitation by her family and a rapacious advertising industry, it was derided on release as a creepy authorial wish-fulfilment fantasy, despite Potter’s protestations.

It has proved impossible for some critics to look past the unsparing, often cruel, elements of Potter’s work. Certainly, few considered him a particularly cuddly figure; there is a good reason why the 2015 edition of Potter’s collected nonfiction writing is titled The Art of Invective.

Prof John Cook is one of the leading experts on Potter and his oeuvre. “There is an optimism in the work, but it’s a hard-won optimism,” he says. The image of an avant garde misanthrope often fails to stand up to scrutiny. In one essay, Potter wrote: “The most beautiful part of being alive is our capacity to shape our lives by language, by stories, because the world is full of the murmur of human beings trying to reshape reality.”

Filming Michael Gambon in The Singing Detective.View image in fullscreen

The clarity and poignancy of Potter’s final interview has shaded his legacy ever since. It would be difficult not to be moved, as the critic Brian Dillon noted in an admiring 2019 essay for Frieze, by what amounts to “Potter’s last great work”. Subjects covered in the conversation ran from his childhood to a ringing broadside against the steady uptick in political cynicism, rampant commercialisation and a steady cultural decline at least partly brought about by “the pollution of what was already a pretty polluted” British press.

Immensely quotable, the tone ranges from witty stoicism to fury and down into the seeds of a carefully tempered optimism. He descrobed writing from home in Ross, the early spring blossom now “the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be … the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous”. As for his pancreatic cancer, it had a name: Rupert. “The man Murdoch is the one who, if I had the time – in fact I’ve got too much writing to do and I haven’t got the energy – but I would shoot the bugger if I could”.

The idea for a televised final testament had come from Michael Grade, then the chief executive of Channel 4. Grade and Potter’s relationship went back years, to the days when Grade was director of programmes for London Weekend Television, where he poached Potter and Trodd from the BBC in a lucrative, if short-lived, multiprogramme contract.

The relationship wasresumed when Grade became controller of BBC One in the mid-80s, from where he later commissioned The Singing Detective. “Dennis had sent a note via his agent saying he was very ill and wanted to meet,” says Grade. “He insisted on coming into the Channel 4 office and I made sure we had red wine and ash trays. We had a long talk. After he left, I thought: ‘This would be worth recording.’”

After assuring Potter that there was nothing “ambulance chasing” about the enterprise, the date was set, with Bragg as interlocutor. “The two of them went off and recorded the conversation,” says Grade. “It was extraordinary. The reaction was like nothing else. There were hundreds of letters, the switchboards were jammed. People were moved by it.”

Grade has little time for kneejerk categorisation of Potter as a uniquely “difficult artist”. “We had rows, but we also told each other the truth. He knew how much I loved his work.” Certainly, it didn’t take much for Grade to greenlight The Singing Detective. “I was having a pee in the gents’ loos on the sixth floor of the BBC. Jonathan Powell [then the BBC’s head of drama] came in. He said he’d just seen Dennis and explained the outline of the programme. I said I’d take it right away.”

It is tempting to wonder how Potter would have got on with the streamer-dominated world of television today – a world even more fragmented and oligarchical than the one he railed against in the mid-90s. For Cook, it’s easy to imagine Potter adapting to new realities. His talent would always find a way to assert itself. “Towards the end of his career, he always wanted to have one foot in Hollywood and one in public service broadcasting, which he really believed in. If he was in his 50s today, you could see him working with Netflix or Amazon Prime in co-production with the BBC.”

Source: theguardian.com